Barndominium vs. Shipping Container Homes: Comparison (2024)

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Modern home design has shifted towards clean lines, lower costs, and economical workmanship. The best way to achieve these features is to use as few materials as possible built using modern construction methods.

This is where barndominiums, or barndos, prove their worth. They cost less, use far fewer material types and amounts, and are more durable than conventional houses.

However, other modern construction methods produce clean lines and lower costs, but use different structural elements to create good-quality homes. 

We’re talking about the humble shipping container.

This guide compares the benefits of barndominiums and container homes and discusses the issues that might arise from the local zoning and building codes if you decide this route.

What Is A Barndominium?

Barndominiums are a dwelling based on the exterior architecture of the traditional American agricultural building. So don’t be surprised if a typical barndo looks like it’s part of the movie set for “Little House on the Prairie,” a popular Western television show of the 1970s.

Typically, a barndo can be a renovated pre-used farm building, a new home built in the rural style, or a pre-engineered kit constructed in a factory and delivered to the site for assembly. 

But, although the exterior may look traditional, the interior is sleek, modern, and designed to suit the owner’s lifestyle. The barndo’s design transfers its weight to the foundations through the external walls, leaving the interior free from supporting pillars or load-bearing walls.

Therefore, you can configure the open-concept interior to suit your family, hobbies, or occupation. In fact, many barndo owners use the first floor as a garage or workshop and the upper floors as living spaces.

Depending on your location in the country, you may find that traditional farm buildings are made from wood, whereas in other areas, the chief material is steel.

Generally, steel barndos are by far the cheaper of the two, so we’ll concentrate on this material in the following guide.

Origins of Barndominiums

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Barn living was initially born from necessity when farmers lived above their cattle and belongings to save money and keep them safe. Consequently, the concept has existed for at least a few hundred years.

However, the term “Barndominium” was initially used by Karl Nilsen, a real estate developer, in a New York Times article dated 1989. Nilsen was planning an original style of planned community centered on horses and equine hobbies.

Nevertheless, the modern concept of barndominium living became popular during the mid-2010s with a hit home-makeover show, “Fixer-Upper,” helping viewers transform old buildings into new homes.

The theme of this episode was to convert a disused barn into a barndominium.

The show spread the concept across the USA, bringing the open-concept barndominium living idea to almost everyone.

Key Features and Characteristics

A barndominium has several features that set it apart from a conventional home. 

  • It has a flexible interior space, allowing you to customize the configuration depending on your circumstances.
  • Barndos are cheaper and quicker to build than a conventional house. They use fewer materials and avoid using multiple materials as much as possible. In fact, most pre-engineered kits use steel for the main structural frame, wood for the interior studs, and vinyl or steel for the siding. Because of steel’s high structural strength, the construction doesn’t need wood framing or masonry to support the loads. Similarly, the loads transfer to the foundations through the exterior steel wall framework without needing interior pillars and supporting walls.
  • Most barndos use less manpower and fewer materials, resulting in a cheaper build.
  • Vinyl and steel need less maintenance compared to wood and masonry.
  • Steel is essentially fireproof, difficult to damage, and challenging to break into, so a metal barndo attracts lower insurance costs.
  • Steel is termite- and vermin-proof and reduces the risk of mold and mildew infestation.
  • It’s easy to install effective thermal foam insulation and energy-efficient windows and doors, thus making your barndo energy costs less than a conventional home.

Architectural Highlights

Barndominium architecture differs from the rural farmhouse style because it includes a practical barn design.

Typically, a barndo incorporates the following features:

  • Many owners choose a roof style of their own. However, typical barndos use a gambrel roof, as it’s closest in style to a traditional barn.
  • Because the load-bearing walls are also the exterior shell frame, no supporting pillars or walls obstruct the floor. Therefore, many owners use an open-concept floor plan or have partitions to provide rooms when needed.
  • The barndo concept uses an appealing rustic design. Generally, it’s reminiscent of traditional pole barns, but converted into open-concept living areas.
  • Each State has unique details on its farm buildings, and a barndominium designer can add these to the overall design so the structure complements the buildings in the surrounding area. For example, a barndo constructed in a specific county in Texas will differ slightly from one built in New England.

Advantages of Barndominium Living

Barndominiums have several advantages over conventional houses:

  • Typically, barndos are an affordable home build option, constructed with a structural steel frame. Steel is cheaper to produce and turn into a finished product than wood or masonry and is easier to build with. 
  • Many barndo owners use their structure as a combination living space, workspace, and storage area. Therefore, the costs per square foot are significantly lower compared to building separate structures for each purpose.
  • Usually, barndominiums have open-concept floor plans. Therefore, the structure has greater space flexibility, removing the need for structural interior walls and reducing overall construction costs.
  • Barndos have lower maintenance requirements, thus saving money. They also have a structural steel frame with steel or vinyl siding. This design prevents infestation from insects and other vermin, prevents fungal attack and rot, and reduces foundation movement in the event of seismic activity or flooding.  
  • Steel Barndominiums attract lower insurance costs because of their low flammability, less in-wall plumbing, and high security.
  • Barndos save money through energy efficiency. Moreover, energy efficiency attracts federal government tax credits for solar panels to generate electricity and insulation to reduce heat loss through all external surfaces. Both these features lower utility bills.
  • Steel barndos are durable and can withstand severe weather conditions such as hurricanes, tornadoes, snow, and heavy rain. After all, tornado storm shelters are made from steel, so how about having your private family storm shelter?
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Unpacking Shipping Container Homes

We’ve all seen shipping containers on long-distance trucks or ocean-going merchant ships. They’re efficient, hardwearing, and, more importantly, weatherproof. Oh, did we also mention that they’re very affordable too?

But did you know we can use them as the core of versatile and affordable housing? 

If you arrange the containers onto a stable, concrete foundation and stack them into pleasing configurations. All you need to do is connect them, attach the utilities, and fit them out.

The exterior may look industrial, but the interior can be as warm and snug as any conventionally built home.

The Rise of Repurposed Containers

Shipping containers used to transport freight on ocean-going ships must be made to a high standard to satisfy the insurance companies covering the containers’ contents.

After reaching a specified number of trips, containers are no longer suitable for long-distance journeys and must be retired from service.

Initially, many companies used repurposed shipping containers as temporary shelters, onshore storage, and animal housing. But, their quality was often too good to be left to rust in a field somewhere.

Eventually, someone had the bright idea of using these watertight and airtight steel boxes as the basis for private dwellings for humans. 

Remember, the following list only contains the recorded instances of container homes. It’s so obvious that people may have used them as dwellings for many years.

  • In 1956, Malcolm McLean invented the shipping container for international freight movements.
  • A British architect wrote a thesis in the 1970s on how to convert shipping containers into homes. He built some, and they’re still in use today.
  • In 1989, a Californian architect, Phillip Clark, received an approved patent for converting a container into a habitable dwelling.
  • In 1998, The Simon’s Town High School Hostel used shipping containers as accommodation to house up to 120 people.
  • Peter DeMaria completed the first container home in the US in 2007.

Core Features and Design Aspects

The core features of container homes are as follows:

  • Quick to construct
  • Durable design made from corten steel
  • Easily transported and can be lifted on-site using a mobile crane
  • Repurposed shipping containers, reducing waste and pollution
  • Energy efficient
  • Durable, weatherproof, fire-resistant, and flood resistant
  • Easily converted into modular housing

Flexibility in Design

You can customize the interior of each container unit and have as many units together as you wish. However, the standardized dimensions of the container unit constrain any structural customization.

In contrast, a barndominium can be as large or small as you want. Usually, popular barndominium designs have a floor area of 2,000 sq. ft. In comparison, a single shipping container may have a floor area between 80-320 sq. ft. 

Although there are specialized containers with different dimensions for specific purposes, the typical shipping container comes in three standard sizes:

  • 8 ft. x 10 ft. = 80 sq. ft.
  • 8 ft. x 20 ft. = 160 sq. ft.
  • 8 ft. x 40 ft. = 320 sq. ft.

Furthermore, the standard height is 8.5 ft. Therefore, to produce a home of similar size to an average barndo, you’ll need:

  • 12 x 160 sq. ft. + 1 x 80 sq. ft.= 2,000 sq. ft.

Or:

  • 6 x 320 sq. ft. + 1 x 80 sq. ft. = 2,000 sq. ft.

Or any other combination of these container sizes.

Environmental and Sustainability Benefits

The most obvious environmental benefit is that without repurposing shipping containers, we would have millions of acres of industrial land full of stacked steel containers that are no longer suitable for international travel, and slowly rusting away.

Repurposing these units means there’s no need to use other materials to produce cheap dwellings.

In fact, if it wasn’t for shipping containers, we would probably never have thought of the concept of using small standardized steel boxes as homes.

Comparing Barndominium And Container Homes

At first sight, you may be forgiven for assuming that barndominiums are similar to container homes.

Yes, they’re both made from steel. But that’s where the similarity ends. 

Cost Factors

When comparing a barndominium to a container home, you should first discuss how much each costs. 

Initial Investments

Generally speaking, the initial investment of a container home is significantly less than that of a barndominium.

Typically, the cost varies depending on the quality of the container and whether it’s fitted out with decorated drywall, plumbing, electrics, flooring, and fixtures.

However, usually, you’ll pay about $10,000 to $15,000 for a finished 80 sq. ft. container unit. In comparison, a 160 sq. ft. container costs around $15,000-$20,000, while a 320 sq. ft. container costs $25,000-$50,000.

However, if you want to install the fixtures yourself, you can buy an empty, bare-bones container for $1,500-$10,000, depending on quality and age.

Suppose we look at the two building types. A 2,000 sq. ft. barndominium kit costs between $30 to $150/sq. ft. totaling $60,000-$300,000. In comparison, a container home of similar floor size costs 180,000 to $250,000. 

However, the container arrives on site fully furnished, requiring only to be placed in position, joined together, and connected to the utilities.

Over the long term, barndos usually offer the largest savings in cost compared to container homes.

For example, initially, you may spend more on constructing a large barndo, which will cost more to heat or cool. However, you’ll spend less on repairs than a container home and won’t need to replace your home in a few short decades.

Long-Term Maintenance

With regular maintenance, your container home can last for 25 years or more.

However, remember that containers used by shipping companies may already have a few years under their belt. Furthermore, they may have been exposed to corrosive salt water, knocked around, and damaged in many ways.

So, if you can, buy “One Trip” or “Single Trip” containers, as these will usually be in much better condition than recycled containers. However, they will be more expensive.

Unfortunately, container homes are prone to various issues affecting their joints caused by welding defects, which eventually turn into leaks.

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Barndominiums, constructed using a braced steel frame and bolted steel paneling, are much more stable than shipping containers.

In comparison, the container unit consists of cut steel welded onto posts and beams.

Due to wind loads and temperature expansion and contraction, the container’s weight and natural movement cause the welds to gradually lose their structural integrity, eventually leading to leaks, corrosion, and collapse.

Maintenance Steps

Maintaining a container home is essential to keep your living space comfortable.

  • Regular cleaning removes accumulated dirt on the container’s exterior, which causes rust and other types of corrosion. One crucial component is the roof. Inspect it for damage, peeling paint, and debris.
  • Inspect for chipped and peeling paint if your container home has an exterior paint finish.
  • Seal all corners, joins, and edges with a good-quality silicone sealant to prevent water ingress.
  • Ensure your container has enough ventilation. Proper airflow regulates the temperature and prevents rust-producing condensation. Double-glaze your doors and windows, and check them for broken hinges and leaks. Don’t forget to lubricate all moving parts for smooth operation.
  • If you aren’t careful, your container home will be home to many pests that enter through poorly sealed gaps and cracks. If you find gaps in the outside walls or roof, fill them with expanding foam or silicone sealant. Furthermore, install insect mesh onto all opening windows.
  • Inspect the container’s foundations for problems. Identify if there are indications of settling, moving, or damage. Check for cracks and erosion in the concrete. Incorrect rainwater management causes many foundation issues. So, ensure the gutter and downspouts divert the rainwater well away from the foundations to prevent washing out the supporting soil.
  • Container homes usually have support posts and beams. Check for signs of deterioration or damage and replace or repair them if necessary.
  • Where the containers and support posts anchor to the foundations, check that all bolts are tight and in good condition.
  • Check your HVAC system works properly. Replace filters regularly and remove debris from all the ducts. There are other checks that only a professional can do, so hire an HVAC technician for an annual inspection.

Durability and Lifespan

Shipping container homes last many years. But their lifespan depends on several factors:

  • Container quality
  • How your climate affects the container
  • The quality of the foundation
  • Regular maintenance

If you look after these regularly, you can make your containers withstand the environmental conditions that typically cause damage.

Thus, providing a home that lasts for several decades.

Customization and Design Flexibility

Because shipping containers come in standard sizes, 8 ft. wide, 8.5 ft. high, and 10 ft., 20 ft., or 40 ft. long, you’ll find it challenging to customize your home outside these constraints.

Furthermore, most container home manufacturers supply each container already fitted out with plumbing, electrics, fixtures, and appliances. So, you’ll buy a kitchen container, living room container, bedroom container, etc.

This situation restricts the amount of customization still further. However, if you’re prepared to pay more, you can often have a choice of fixtures and appliances within the restrictions of each room. 

The exterior has more design flexibility as you can cover the exterior steel walls and roof with sidings made from various materials. Typically, owners choose wood or vinyl siding and roofs covered with fiberglass in an epoxy matrix.

Environmental Footprints

When designed correctly, shipping container homes are some of the most environmentally friendly dwellings you can have. 

Materials and Building Processes

Manufacturers make shipping containers from steel, one of the few 100% recyclable construction materials available. Unlike multi-material houses, which use mixed lumber, brick, concrete, and plastic, shipping containers use only one material: steel, which we can recycle.

If you include the interior, which makes a container into a home, you will have various materials such as drywall and wooden studs. But, they’re easily separated, unlike a conventional house.  

Even the building process is more environmentally friendly than conventional houses. Unlike these structures, which need hazardous alkaline cement mortar to join bricks and blocks, containers use metal welds, nuts and bolts, and rivets.

We make these jointing methods from steel, just like the container. Moreover, a container home’s only major non-metal part is the concrete foundation.

Energy Efficiency

If we consider the steel container carcass, you have a sealed box, completely draft-free and watertight.

Furthermore, use the correct thermal insulation R-value specified by the building codes, combined with doors and windows with the right U-value, and you’ll have a highly energy-efficient dwelling that saves money on energy charges.

Also, using passive solar heating methods, a container home can store energy from the sun, which gradually warms the interior.

Location, Zoning & Building Regulations

Some of the most significant issues we have when deciding on buying a container home are its final location, what building codes apply, and whether the zoning regulations will accept our style of living.

Geographic Preferences for Each Home Type

Although you may have a geographic preference for your container home, the deciding factor is what kind of laws apply in the district where you want to live. Some states don’t agree with the container living concept, while others do.

Do some research to find out which is the best for your circumstances. 

Here are a few examples of container-living welcoming states. But, there are plenty more to look at if you don’t like these.

The best way to decide on your container home’s location is to research and confirm that the county and state of your choice welcomes container homes and doesn’t have restrictive regulations.

Alaska 

Alaska has a low population and high land prices.

Therefore, the state government welcomes all types of low-cost housing, including shipping container homes.

California

Surprisingly, you can get a permit for a container home in California. Although there are many strict housing laws here, the state prides itself on being progressive and welcoming to alternative housing.

If you can, choose somewhere in the north of the state and inland, as these regions are less restrictive, and the land is more reasonably priced.

Louisiana

Louisiana is very welcoming to container homes. The authorities don’t carry out strict inspections, and there are few permits to buy.

You’ll also find that container homes are relatively common in this state, so you can settle down alongside many like-minded neighbors.

Missouri 

Missouri is generally warm during summer and cool in winter. So, it’s ideal for simple container living. Moreover, the zoning regulations usually welcome container homes as they are an affordable alternative to conventional dwellings.

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Furthermore, Missouri is one of the few states that doesn’t require a permit for your conItainer home. All in all, Missouri seems like a great place to buy land and erect your shipping containers.

Tennessee

Tennessee has the most lenient building codes of all states regarding container homes, mainly because most of the land is for farming, and ordinary people can’t afford high real estate prices.

If you opt for this state, stay away from the Blue Ridge Mountains, as land here will attract much higher prices than elsewhere.

Texas

Texas has fewer building regulations than many other states. However, avoid large conurbations as they won’t be as welcoming as rural areas.

Furthermore, research each area as some counties have different rules from others. 

Overcoming Zoning Challenges

Zoning regulations ensure you build in specific locations determined by your home type. Furthermore, each town has regulations to complement the local government’s long-term plan for the area. 

Before beginning the erection of your new container home, you must pass the zoning criteria for your location. These include:

  • The containers’ materials
  • Color
  • Configuration of containers
  • The overall style
  • Your container home’s size
  • The property’s purpose

The regulations also examine the number of rooms you intend to build and the overall footprint and height. You probably won’t find much opposition if you want a single story.

However, if you plan a multistory container home, be aware that there may be issues with more than two floors.

Moreover, the regulations look at wall thickness, how much thermal and soundproofing insulation you use, how close you are to a neighbor’s house, and whether you overlook their land.

Some counties have strict environmental controls, which aren’t only about recycling or energy efficiency. Instead, they check whether your home is at a suitable level to prevent the effects of flooding and other environmental disasters.

Homeowners must abide by the local Homeowners Association rules. Before purchasing your land and designing the container home, check with the local HOA for any restrictive rules.

Meeting Building Codes

Building codes ensure your home is safe to live in, and a container home is no exception. UpCodes is a helpful resource for deciding on building code requirements for container homes in your area.

Alternatively, research the ICC Building Codes website for more details. Or, even better, ask your local authority for information on which codes relate to your project.

Apart from the usual codes governing plumbing, electrical circuits, HVAC, etc., you must comply with thermal and acoustic insulation codes.

The federal government offers tax incentives for energy-efficiency home improvements, and it’s worthwhile looking into this during the planning stage.

Every state in the US has a climate zone, and energy efficiency building codes require you to use the necessary R-value of insulation within the zone. 

Securing the Necessary Permits

Building permits ensure you have legal permission to construct your container home. Every town or county has a unique variation of building codes and permits necessary for your local conditions based on the International Residential Code guidelines.

The best way to ensure the local authority issues the correct permits is to comply with all the building and zoning regulations. Let’s consider the main steps you should take:

  • Contact the local authority to determine if you can build your container home in a specific location. 
  • Check with the local building department for a list of code requirements for container homes in their area. You’ll also apply for a building permit here.
  • Invite a building inspector to check your container project for local regulations compliance.
  • Contact the Homeowner Association for their specific rules.
  • Use a professional permit expeditor to handle all the paperwork and get through the red tape as quickly as possible.

Making Your Decision: Barndominium Or Container Home?

There are many pros and cons of container homes and barndominiums, which you must consider when deciding. We’ve already discussed some of them.

But, it’s worthwhile emphasizing them again along with those previously unmentioned.

Budget

If you have a limited budget, choose a container home over a barndominium.

Typically, the cost of a container home is equivalent to that of a new car. Therefore, containers are better for young first-time buyers or those with low incomes, bad credit, or no savings to form a downpayment. 

Evaluating Space and Layout Needs

Container homes are usually smaller than a barndo, which can be good or bad depending on your circumstances. Typically, a container may suit a couple or single person better than a barndo.

Barndominiums provide enough space for a family and often include enough room for garaging, a workshop, and hobby space. Furthermore, the large post-frame structural supports offer a much more versatile dwelling than a container home.

Aesthetics and Design Preferences

No matter how much you add trim and various types of siding material to a shipping container, it always remains just a shipping container trying to look like a home.

In contrast, a barndominium complements the surroundings like any rural agricultural building and is built from the ground up, just like a stick-built house.

Moreover, suppose you want it to look like a conventional house. In that case, it’s easy to tweak the design to veer away from the practical rural barn vibe and more towards that of a traditional residence. 

Return on Investment and Resale Value

A barndominium’s value is in its longevity compared to a shipping container. An adequately designed barndominium can last a lifetime, compared to a container home, which may last twenty years or so.

So, although a barndominium is initially more expensive than a container home, it will keep its value and last a lot longer than a container. Furthermore, a barndo will withstand extreme weather much better than a container home.

The resale value of a container home is sometimes as much as 100% of its initial value. This is mainly due to their ease of transport.

Unlike a barndo, which has to stay where it’s built, we lift containers onto a flatbed truck and ship them to another part of the country.

In comparison, a barndominium’s resale value increases slowly but at about the same appreciation as a commercial property, about 2%-3% per year. 

Conclusion

Container homes and barndominiums are two examples of unconventional metal dwellings with unique features.

Typically, barndos are larger than container homes and would better suit a family. However, its large size also results in longer construction times and a more expensive home.

Yet, the larger barndos have more space, are much more versatile than a container home, and are open to more customizations than a container that has to stay within the confines of the standard-sized box.

Choosing whether you want a barndo or a container home is a personal choice, depending on your circumstances. If you want a large home with plenty of space for family and activities, or if your region suffers extreme weather, choose a barndominium.

However, if you haven’t enough funds, and there’s only you and your partner, choose a container home.

It’s up to you.

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Adam Marcos

Adam Marcos, a veteran with 25+ years in custom home building, now serves as Managing Editor of BarndominiumZone. He passionately helps people on their journey of creating their dream barndo homes, offering valuable insights and practical advice. With a warm and approachable demeanor, Adam inspires readers to embrace unique living spaces that reflect their aspirations. Join him on a transformative adventure, turning ordinary spaces into extraordinary havens of creativity and fulfillment. Experience the magic of bringing visions to life, one barndo at a time.

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